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Can Data Mining Save America's Schools?

Schools have more data than ever, and there's a major push on to make better use of it to identify students who need help.
CHALLENGES AHEAD
Tennessee's mild example just hints at the controversy ahead as data becomes a bigger part of education. What happens when the data continually shows a teacher underperforming, regardless of the "professional development" that's been offered? Will pricey BI systems compete with more direct student needs, from in-classroom technologies and e-learning to smaller class sizes and better-paid teachers? Will a new digital divide emerge, where those students who've built a good data history have a better safety net than those who've shuttled among schools? Could parents become as obsessed about trajectory graphs as they are about SAT scores, spawning a prep-course industry for middle school? And as educators start identifying the learning needs of individual students, how do teachers prioritize to address dozens of kids' unique needs?

Steering through such questions will be up to a new generation of data-savvy administrators and educators, as well as parents and policy makers. Industries such as health care are facing similar slow-motion revolutions, trying to figure out the best way to make digital health data part of treatment.

The pressure is clearly growing on school districts to do more with the data they're collecting. "We are in the early stages of evaluating data mining and reporting tools," says Lenny Schad, CIO of the 55,000-student Katy Independent School District, outside Houston. Schad, who joined the district in 2003 after a 15-year IT career in the oil and gas business, including a CIO stint, says the district's goal is to generate dashboards specific for each level in the organization, with drill-down capability to provide further analysis.

All these tools, however, will only work if teachers believe in the data analysis and can easily translate it to what students need to learn.

That leads to a problem the business sector knows well: how to get analytics tools spread broadly to give decision makers the insights they need. Business intelligence vendors including IBM Cognos, SAP Business Objects, SAS, and SPSS all provide BI or analytics products aimed at the K-12 education segment. But despite a lot of talk about "BI to the masses" in business, the typical private-sector company might provide "150 power users" with the sort of high-level business insight you get from business intelligence, says Gartner analyst Bill Rust. In a large school district, "you might have 7,000 power users." In New York City, they're hoping for 80,000 power users.

In Hershey, Pa., the effort starts with staff meetings devoted to discussing data and its uses, and for specifically carving out time for teachers to use the data analysis tools. Assistant superintendent Goldsworthy has spent 35 years in education and has seen big strides only in the last five years in using data well. "Data without analysis doesn't teach you anything, and analysis without action doesn't change anything," she says.

Goldsworthy describes public education as "in its infancy in using data." That's true. But all indications are it's going to need to grow up fast.

Photograph by Erica Berger

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